We will soon be both energy consumers and energy producers.
Looking back at the history of human civilization, for a long time, firewood was the primary source of energy. However, back then, energy ultilization was low and as such, air pollution emissions were also low.
The invention of the steam engine in the 18th century marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which led to the mining and consumption of coal on a large scale. In 1920, coal accounted for 62 percent of primary energy consumption, indicating that the world had entered the coal age.
In 1965, petroleum replaced coal as the most consumed energy, which led the world into the petroleum age. Up until now, fossil fuels have continued to dominate as our energy resource.
“The connection to solar energy at a fair price will become a reality faster than we expect.”
With each new age, the use and efficiency of energy have increased significantly – as have levels of severe environmental pollution, unfortunately. Our future energy system must therefore be clean and low-carbon to ensure the sustainable development of human civilization.
As such, it won’t take long for solar energy generation to become economically cheaper than thermal power generation worldwide.
We are now embarking on a new era of energy production. The energy system of the future should have the following three features:
Low-carbon energy production
Fossil fuels must be burned to release energy, which causes significant emissions and environmental pollution. The existing intensive industrial usage of fossil fuels has significantly harmed the environment. Meanwhile, for most economically under-developed countries around the world, the cost of clean energy is too high to be affordable.
Solar power, however, is one of the best solutions. Not only is solar energy production clean, it may also soon become a much more affordable source of energy, as technology development and innovation continues to reduce the cost of solar power generation.
The cost of solar energy generation in 2015 decreased to as low as one-sixth the cost in 2005. In the near future, solar power will be less expensive than coal power. Renewable clean energy that replaces fossil fuels is the direction of the ongoing energy revolution.
Energy independence and connectivity
The existing electrical energy system has been made of large-scale hydropower plants and coal power plants in resource-rich regions, supplying their output to consumption centers through a grid system. Such development not only requires enormous investment, it also causes serious environmental problems.
The energy system of the future, dominated by renewables, will be built on the basis of regions. Each region will have its own energy supply system – forming a new system with a regional, interconnected power network, so as to balance the system and ensure a consistent energy supply. An energy system like this would be far more optimized than our existing one.
When solar energy is adopted by hundreds of factories and thousands of houses, the power supply system will be totally changed. Every school, every factory and every family will become a micro-clean energy power station.
We will be both energy consumers and energy producers, part of an energy-sharing system based on a large database and a smart-energy connection platform. Such a vision has already been realized in Germany, where many households are equipped with solar panels on their rooftops.
If one family produces more electricity than they use, they share the extra power with other families through a regional grid. Establishing an energy-sharing system can further decrease the cost of adopting clean energy. It can be a new model of shared energy and a shared economy.
Energy consumption in developing regions
While developed countries are changing their energy structure from fossil fuels to renewables, less developed regions still lack energy supply models. Those countries could skip the traditional power system and directly adopt new clean energy.
Right now, 1.4 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, including 500 million people in Asia. In the future, we can build a solar power system, with distributed and micro-power networks, making electricity accessible to anyone around the world by 2030.
“Right now, 1.4 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, including 500 million people in Asia.”
This kind of energy revolution will bring universal value and significance.
Throughout human history, industrial revolutions have also been energy revolutions. Every shift from a dominant energy source has been a revolution. Each time, a change has resulted in industrial and social developments.
The next energy revolution is now accelerating, propelled by technology development and innovation. Consequently, the connection to solar energy at a fair price will become a reality faster than we expect.
This article first appeared on the World Economic Forum and was republished with permission.
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